HELENA – Some advocates of reviving passenger rail service in the West urged Gov. Steve Bullock to take up the issue with his counterparts in the Western Governors’ Association.
Missoula City Council member Dave Strohmaier, Chuck McMillan of Helena and J. Kirk Thompson of Stevensville met with Bullock, Lt. Gov. John Walsh, Chief of Staff Tim Burton and Transportation Director Mike Tooley.
Their goal is to restore the North Coast Hiawatha route across southern and central Montana, possibly from Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Livingston, Bozeman and Helena to Missoula.
They also are working with others in an effort to restore the Pioneer passenger route, which ran between Denver and Portland, Ore., and Seattle, and the Desert Wind passenger route which ran from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles.
“Montana looking at this insularly is not going to get that done,” Strohmaier said. “We will be at the same place in a decade. The better place is to look at this regionally and probably through the Western Governors’ Association.”
In advocating for expanded passenger rail service across central and southern Montana for the North Coast Hiawatha, the three men made it clear that they don’t want to jeopardize the future of Amtrak’s current Empire Builder passenger trains that run across Montana’s Hi-Line.
Bullock made no initial commitments.
“There are some shared challenges, but also great opportunities,” Bullock said.
The Western Governors’ Association had its annual meeting in Park City, Utah, in late June.
McMillan said the group hopes Bullock will share the idea when he talks to other western governors.
Strohmaier said additional passenger rail service would help the freight trains in Montana because the track here would have to be improved to handle additional rail traffic.
An Amtrak study in 2009 estimated the startup cost of reviving the North Coast Hiawatha route alone through Montana would cost $1.043 billion, but would attract more than 360,000 passengers a year.
Thompson did his own study and concluded all three routes could be restored for about the same price Amtrak said just the North Coast Hiawatha route could be. He said Amtrak doesn’t want long-distance trains, but wants to serve only the East Coast and part of the West Coast.
Transportation Director Tooley said the Amtrak study showed that of the 360,000 new passengers created if the North Coast Hiawatha route is revived, only 15,000 would be Montanans.
Thompson disputed that. He said Whitefish, a stop on the Empire Builder line, reports 30,000 passengers a year.
Strohmaier, a 2012 candidate for Congress, said the states can play a key role in the effort, but federal money is needed.
“Who’s going to push this along in a way to spur support from the federal government?” he asked. “I think the states can do it. I think the state of Montana can play a key role.”
In response, Bullock said, “It certainly could be a boon to western Montana from an economic development perspective as long as it doesn’t supplant the Empire Builder.”